Until early September, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is putting on an array of Shakespeare’s finest plays. York and Blenheim Palace are now home to Europe’s first ever pop-up Shakespearean theatres. The thirteen-sided structures and open tops, made from dismantlable state-of-the-art scaffolding technology and timber, directly echo the 1587 London Rose Playhouse, as well as The Globe in London.
The immersive experience allows you to step back into Elizabethan England. Beyond the theatre walls, the company have built a whole village, complete with a sophisticated Elizabethan garden, numerous drinks, food and souvenir stalls, as well as minstrels in 16th century dress. In York, there is even a pot-bellied pig and a woman in the stocks to complete the scene. Far from being cheesy, it feels authentic. Shakespeare himself would have recognised the raucous laughter, the groups of people huddled together in conversation in the interval, and especially the loud comments about the cost of the beer.
Henry V is one of the four Shakespeare plays currently being staged at the York theatre, in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower. The uplifting sense of patriotism is palpable throughout, with giant English flags being the focal point of the otherwise sparse set. During the play they become increasingly tattered and bloodied, symbolising the exhaustion of the battle-worn English troops. Moments of relief from the battle, often take the form of hearty singing. The rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot was both poignant and rousing, particularly when supported by a slick choreography.
There’s an innovative employment of stage setting and space throughout. A particularly impressive scene involves Henry V climbing up and down ladders, trying to get to grips with the location of the French enemy, whilst being spun in the air by the chorus, with impressive acrobatics that suggest the chaos of a battle. Meanwhile some of the cast even appear unexpectedly amongst the audience on the tiered seating, adding more elements of interaction and pantomime to the performance.
Nevertheless, since this troupe is simultaneously performing The Tempest, it is only to be expected that some of the casting is less than perfect. Maggie Bain, playing Henry V, often swallowed and rushed her lines. Due to Bain’s insufficient voice projection and lack of zeal, the infamous St Crispin’s Day speech seemed lacklustre. She was not the only member of the cast who disappointed. Several of the French nobles’ accents were ridiculous, verging on farcical, making them seem like mere caricatures. Again, this added to the pantomime element. Their contemporary tennis costumes and sunglasses increased further the general ridiculousness, but also hilarity.
Though the groundlings appeared to enjoy their proximity to the action, it might be best to opt for the covered seating. During the performance the heavens opened, leaving many of the groundlings damp and dejected by the end.
If you are looking for a fun evening out and enjoy the idea of travelling back in time, then head straight for the Rose theatre without delay. The acting may not be up to the standard of Kenneth Branagh’s movie, but it is thoroughly enjoyable evening, nevertheless.
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre are performing various Shakespeare plays in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire and York until September.